You hear it all the time: Nine out of 10 visitors to Shenandoah National Park never leave the car. There are good reasons for this -- including, in late summer, that lovely little button on the dashboard marked "MAX AC."
The serious year-round reason, of course, is Skyline Drive itself. Less than two hours from town, it's a peerless 105 miles of smooth two-lane blacktop hewn by Depression-era crews to the ancient granite backbone of Virginia's Blue Ridge, from Front Royal to the start of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Waynesboro. Even a short drive reveals a panorama of deep hollows and endless foothills to the east and, to the west, the wide Shenandoah Valley, a rippled green and brown quilt tucked into Massanutten Mountain in the hazy distance. This year the Park Service began trimming back 60 years of vista-obscuring foliage from roadsides and, especially, overlooks. As drive-by movies go, it's a hit.
Only it's not a movie, of course. It's real -- and for those of us spending so much time in the imaginary but amazingly lifelike world of cell phones, CNN and cyberspace, "real" is an excellent subject to pursue during breaks or on weekends.
Skyline may be perfect for Big Picture-taking, but the most vivid snapshots of local color, both cultural and natural, tend to turn up off the Drive. Here you find the stream-bed hollows, waterfalls, ridges and wildlife-friendly meadows once traversed (and selectively cleared for hunting purposes) by nomadic native tribes -- before European settlers drove them off centuries ago. Or the remnants of mountaineer farmsteads, whose owners were driven off in this century by the federal government. Or the Stetson-wearing rangers who now look after the remaining permanent population: a mix of woodland wildlife that includes white-tailed deer, gray fox, red-tailed hawk and black bear, 100 kinds of trees and 200 species of birds (not including the Gore-Tex-tufted Appalachian Trail through-hiker, a hardy breed that summers here on its way from Georgia to Maine).
In an average year, in any case, about a million and a half of us pass through the park's 196,000 acres -- most intensely in peak-foliage October, the only time you'll have serious trouble finding a room or campsite here.
Passing through is fine. But stopping to smell the mountain laurel is just -- better. A few good parking places follow, listed by activities possible.
(Unless noted, all locations take about two hours to reach from the Beltway, either via the northern entrance at Front Royal 1, where the mile markers begin, or farther south at Thornton Gap 2. Park fee is $10 per car ($5 per person if you bike or bus in.) Details: 540-999-3500.)
Easy: If you're just getting used to out-of-vehicle experiences, or if you're hiking with young children or fans of fresh air with reduced mobility (including the wheelchair-bound), get to the wide, gentle grade of Limberlost Trail 3 (Mile 43) for a shady, 90-minute hike through an old orchard and over Whiteoak Canyon Run. (The highlight, a serene oasis of ancient hemlocks, is something to see. It is especially something since these 400-year-old behemoths and others already stressed by drought -- and, many say, acid rain -- are being slowly killed by the hemlock woolly adelgid, an insect threatening to change the face of eastern forests from here to Canada.)
Better: Since you're starting at the top of the ridge, most of the hikes from Skyline Drive are uphill coming back -- a drag. You can reverse this -- and escape traffic, both motorized and trailside -- by entering the park from the foothill side and heading uphill first. For instance: From U.S. 211, take Route 231 south from Sperryville bn and follow the signs to Old Rag Mountain, the park's most popular hike. Ignore the game of Rag tag, however; from the parking lot, look for the Nicholson Hollow Trail 4 and follow it, and the Hughes River, west through the bottom of a mystical green forest. Some scrambling, stream crossing and at least a few hours are required, but home is downhill.
There are a handful of very nice rustic hotel rooms, lots of adequate motel-like rooms and a few historic cabins at both Skyland 5 (Mile 41.7, built from the modest middle-class resort George Freeman Pollock opened here in 1888 after all the mining and clear-cutting was finished) and the smaller, quieter, less thrown-together-looking Big Meadows 6 (Mile 51.3). If you want a comfortable, evocatively woodsy lodge room near the namesake meadow, try for one of the 20 original lodge rooms at Big Meadows. The best cabins available through Aramark (1-800-999-4714), which runs all the park's lodging, food, horseback riding and supply concessions, are in the "historic district" of Skyland, just far enough from the center of things to be romantic. The most private cabins are at Lewis Mountain 7 (57.5). All Aramark lodging runs $50 to about $100 a night.
Sorta Roughing It
The park maintains more than 600 campsites May through October at Loft Mountain 8 (Mile 79.5), Lewis Mountain 7, Big Meadows 6 and Mathews Arm 9 (22.1), all first-come except the 200 sites at Big Meadows (reserve up to 90 days ahead at 1-800-365-2267). There are camp stores and flush toilets at all, and the sites are RV-compatible but offer no water or electric hookups -- which, if you're just tenting it, means you might have to listen to your neighbors' compressors running all night.
Actually Roughing It
With Help: Join the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club ($30, 703-242-0315, www.patc.net), whose volunteers maintain not only some 80 percent of the 500 miles of trails in the park (including the 95 miles of the Appalachian Trail running the park's length) but also a half-dozen back-country cabins available to members. (For example: Corbin Cabin bk , a former mountain home, is a steep mile and a half from Skyline Drive at mile 37.9.) Each sleeps up to 12, has a nearby spring and pit toilet, and no roads or air-conditioned neighbors for miles.
Solo: If you have a back-country permit (available at almost every park facility with walls) and a strong, packable back, you may camp almost anywhere in the park. Learn the rules at 540-999-3500.
Park and Dine
There are restaurants at Panorama bl (Mile 31.5), Skyland 5 and Big Meadows 6 and waysides (lunch counters/stores) at Elkwallow bm (24.1), Lewis Mountain 7 and Loft Mountain 8. There are better restaurants to the north in Front Royal, and, about eight miles east of Thornton Gap on U.S. 211 in Sperryville bn , the unexpectedly urbane natural-food supermarket, Mountainside Market, and the inexpensive, always-packed family restaurant with abundant servings of both food and good humor, the Appetite Repair Shop.
Catch and Release
The Rapidan River, one of many full-fledged rivers born in the park, is catch-and-release territory for the brook trout fisherman who relishes solitude -- almost a guarantee in the upper reaches. The guys at Sperryville's Thornton River Fly Shop (540-987-9400) can tell you the best stretches on the Rapidan (and other trout hangouts), what to do when you get there, etc. Or heck, they'll just take you out there and show you.
Grip and Grin
Yes, the park now has a rustic but full-service conference hall at Skyland 5, available for functions of 10 to 100 people. After the slide presentation on teamwork, everyone can hike the half-hour up to Little Stony Man Cliffs for a view you'll hardly feel you earned.
Attention Kmart Shoppers
A Blue Ridge special: Membership in the nonprofit Shenandoah Natural History Association ($10, 540-999-3582) entitles you to 20 percent off all the books and maps it sells at the park's stores plus 10- to 50-percent breaks on lodging, dining and trail rides. The Park Service, meanwhile, will sell you a one-year pass for $20. It pays for itself the second time you visit.
Books and Maps
Get them from SNHA (above), at park stores and the visitor centers at Dickey Ridge bo, Mile 4.6; Byrd bp, Mile 51; or Loft Mountain 8. PATC makes the best trail maps, available directly (703-242-0315 or www.patc.net) or at REI, Hudson Trail and other area outdoors stores.